Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera. After American Studies: Rethinking the Legacies of Transnational Exceptionalism. Routledge, 2018.
On the 1st of October 2018, Linda Dwire found herself in the news when she reportedly harassed two women for speaking Spanish inside a grocery store in Rifle, Colorado. According to The Washington Post, “she confronted them over what she believed was an erosion of American values.” Mrs. Dwire defended herself and went on the record with BuzzFeed to clarify that she was not racist, justifying her actions by arguing that “when people come over to my country, they need to love it enough to speak English.” But reality disagrees. According to the U.S. census in 2016, more than 15 percent of the adult population in the United States speaks a language other than English at home. As far as Mrs. Dwire is concerned, 35 million people do not love the country enough. And yet, the idea that one should speak English in the U.S. sounds somehow familiar. How can this particular case, one of many about culturally deracinated immigrants, inform the conversation inside a classroom dealing with contemporary American studies? Or more interestingly, how can this case spark the conversation among students about what it does mean to be an American today?
Students, journalists, and academics might be able to find an answer to these questions inside the pages of After American Studies. If one decides to focus on the discussion of language alone, then “in order to partake in the public matters of the US political body,” argues Herlihy-Mera, “a newcomer must first conform his or her lifestyle and cultural action to the cultural prescriptions of the political body; renounce any affiliation with another society; demonstrate proficiency in the imperial language (English); [and] indicate knowledge of what the political body claims are important historical and cultural events” (117). For in order to belong as a citizen of the political body, the distinction must be made between those who enjoy full citizenship and have a right to have rights and those who are their antithesis: the foreigners, those who speak languages-other-than-English and who have different traditions, cultures, and values. The first problem with this idea, the reader must have noticed by now, is that if the foreigner is one who has different values and cultures, then we, the citizens of the political body, must share between each other something that makes us different from the others: a common set of values.
In his book, Herlihy-Mera offers a critical perspective on national and transnational approaches to community and patriation, which the author understands as the continuous process of building collective identity spheres that would later express multifaceted sorts of patriotism. It challenges transnational readings that understand identity merely as a consequence of external material structures under which individuals simply coexist and develop. Instead, After American Studies invites the reader to observe the cultural narratives that influence the construction of place-making by the use of symbols and languages supposedly representative of a political body and the people who reside in those spaces.
According to Herlihy-Mera, such narratives “regularly begin with the presupposition that ‘America’ (and its transnationalisms) can be understood as cohesive units, or series of communities with contiguous and relational characteristics, that can be categorized” (6). That idea supposes that there is one America, under which its citizens partake and share certain values, norms, and historical narratives imposed upon them from the top down. That is, narratives come down from cultural-political meaning-making industries that create and distribute the goods, ideas, and boundaries of American identity on a large scale. There can also be others coexisting within the borders who, although different, are to be hyphenated within the dominant discourse: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and every other possible combination of “-Americans.” For the author, what using “-American” as the modifying descriptor in every case really does is to “reemphasize that the dominant system is in power by perpetual supra-grouping—which, thus, attempts to supplant more representative local cultural systems” (21). But identity cannot be serialized; on the contrary, and basing his case on recent multicultural psychology and behavioral studies, Herlihy-Mera goes on to argue that “the interactional and negotiated nature of self is generally rebellious to external labels that are often binding signifiers” (9).
From here, the author moves on to analyze the cultural myths and canons that construct the narratives that “attempt to appropriate the space and shape the action of the people who live in [the political body]” (25). From threats of direct violence, to a soft cultural domination, Herlihy-Mera makes the case for thinking about how the enforcement of group membership, albeit useful for the hegemonic power, might be destroying human empathy. How else could the apathy with which many U.S. citizens watched the separation of infants from their parents at the U.S. border be explained? Maybe this is due to the fact that they were not seen as American kids; they were somewhere-else-kids.
The efforts of the state’s cultural program to create a sense of belonging need to be ubiquitous, even when the contradictions of the members of a nation state are obvious. As Anderson explains, the idea of collective identity is merely a fantasy. This book also supposes that even the notion of a nation state, based mainly on the idea of ethnic homogeneity, which supposes a shared language, culture, and traditions, is a fantasy in itself: “fictitious—a construction of the ruling elite” (Castles and Miller 15).
The following chapters revise in detail the idea of forced acculturation, “the absolute saturation of the English language” in every corner of the political land, especially in those areas where English is a minority language. For Herlihy-Mera, this occurs because languages carry sentiments, cultures and philosophies with them. They naturalize codes of conduct and shape how the citizens of the political body interact with each other. The author identifies three central dimensions of supposed linguistic superiority that the U.S. political body employs in order to project a natural status of English: the graphization, or the omnipresence, of English in every public space; the standardization of other languages as non-English and therefore “foreign”; and the criminalization of initiatives that promote languages other than English as representative in public spaces.
Perhaps this book’s biggest contribution is its invitation to observe how digital colonialism, or the “attempts to create dependency on electronic and online communicative devices, for information and social interaction” (144), functions as an additional channel to implement the hegemonic powers’ messages for collective identity. What the author calls the “soft power of e-colonialism,” based on the banality with which media works, is in reality predominantly an attack on cultural diversity—or, in other words, the attempt to maintain a colonialist message using new media forms and structures. As Lampland and Star argue, good infrastructure is “by definition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work” (17). It is something that the individual cannot completely oversee and something that gets produced and reproduced through the bias with which an author creates a piece of literature, film, or art.
The reader should consider After American Studies as an invitation to discuss events like Dwire’s confrontation that highlight linguistic and national identities. For, in a context marked by the landing of national populism in the forefront of the U.S. political arena, this volume serves to deconstruct the narratives that, based on fear and mostly ignorance, claim to think of only one “America first.”
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised ed., Verso, 1991.
Castles, Stephen, and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. Macmillan, 1993.
Lampland, Martha, and Susan Leigh Star, editors. Standards and their stories: How quantifying, classifying, and formalizing practices shape everyday life. Cornell UP, 2009.
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